New Berlin Eisenhower jumped off to a big early lead on Saturday afternoon against Pius XI in the WIAA sectional final at Brown Deer and then played outstanding defense to defeat the Lady Popes, 36-32, and make it back to the state tournament in Green Bay.
The Lions (21-5) will face Green Bay Notre Dame (24-2) in a 3:15 p.m. game Friday, March 11, at the Resch Center. It is the Lions' first trip to state since losing to Notre Dame, 42-33, in the championship game in 2013. This is Eisenhower's fifth trip to state; others were 1988 (0-1), 2010 (2-0), 2012 (1-1) and 2013 (1-1).
If they win, they will play at 6:45 p.m. Saturday, March 12, against the winner of the Onalaska (21-5) and Stoughton (24-2) game.
But Eisenhower had to take care of business first in the sectional final, and on Saturday afternoon, the Lions did something no one else could this season. For the second time, they defeated the defending Division 2 champion Lady Popes, handing them their only losses in a brilliant 24-2 season.
After losing to them, 46-40, on Dec. 15 at home in their first meeting, Eisenhower edged them, 45-42, on Feb. 2 at Pius; and with Saturday's win, they beat the Lady Popes two straight times.
"To beat a team like Pius is never easy," Eisenhower coach Gary Schmidt said. "It will never be easy. We're just happy we got this win.
"I have one of the greatest group of kids I've ever had. I'm happy for my kids and my coaching staff. Going to state is something I wish for any coach. These kids will have an experience they will never forget for the rest of their life. I appreciate their efforts, the coaches' effort and the fact that we made it."
Eisenhower used a 7-0, 10-2 start to keep Pius at arm's length the entire game. The Lady Popes cut the lead to 15-14 at the 4-minute, 45-second mark in the first half, 20-19 with 13:55 in the second half and then 34-32 with 2.3 seconds left in the game.
Senior Chelsea Brackmann started the game with a rebound basket, setting the tone for the day as she finished with 15 rebounds. Freshman Julia Hintz hit a 3-pointer, and junior Jasmyn Somarsingh hit a jumper for a 7-0 lead.
Mandy Szymborski scored on a drive to finally get Pius on the board at 10:26, but Lion sophomore Katie Ludwig hit a 3 to make it 10-2. Pius then outscored Eisenhower, 12-8, the rest of the half, led by 7 points from Jordyn Zader. Leading 15-14, Eisenhower senior Emalie Hahn drilled a 3-pointer at 4:20, and no one scored the rest of the way as the Lions had an 18-14 lead at intermission.
When Pius' Cassie Collins drilled a 3-pointer to cut Eisenhower's lead to 20-19 at the 13:55 mark, the Lions went on a 9-0 run that kept the Popes at bay.
Ludwig hit a 3-pointer, Somarsingh hit two free throws and Brackmann literally ripped a rebound away from a Pius player, scored and then came back and made a layup for a 29-19 lead, the largest lead of the night.
But there was no quit in the Lady Popes, and Collins nailed a 3-pointer, Alexis Richardson hit a jumper, Brackmann made one of two free throws and Zader scored on a drive to make it 30-26 at the 7:01 mark.
Eisenhower senior Kasie Erenyi then drew the biggest foul of the game, when Pius senior center Katie Gardner picked up her fifth foul and had to leave the game with 4:46 left to play.
"Our 'bigs' in general, all did a good job," Schmidt said. "When Gardner got in foul trouble, that sort of opened the door a little bit. It made them defend us a little tougher. They had to put 2-3 people in the post. Then we hit a couple of 3s in the meantime.
"It was the patience of holding the ball, looking inside, We thought this was be in the 30s, low 40s scoring game, so it played out like we thought it would."
Struggled at line
Pius kept fouling the Lions, but they couldn't take advantage of the bonus situation. Leading 32-26 at the 4:46 mark, Eisenhower missed the front end of three straight bonus situations before senior Abby Thyne hit one of two to make it 33-26, as the Lions' defense stopped Pius from scoring during that bad run of shooting.
Then Zader hit two free throws, Brackmann made one of two and Kailey Matel hit two free throws to cut it to 34-30 with 57.9 left.
Eisenhower then broke the press, but Hintz overthrew a wide open Brackmann racing toward the basket, and Pius got the ball back with 28.1 seconds left. But then with 16 seconds left, Matel went to launch a 3-pointer, and Brackmann came out and blocked the shot as eight more seconds ran off the clock. Pius called a time out with 8.8 seconds left.
Szymborski scored on a drive with 2.3 seconds left to cut it to 34-32, but then Brackmann was fouled on the inbound play, and she sank both free throws with 0.8 seconds left in the game to earn a trip back to state for the first time since her freshman year.
The Lions' defense was outstanding as they didn't allow a Pius basket after the 7:01 mark until the final 2.3 seconds.
"They can shoot 3s like nobody's business," Schmidt said. "We knew we had to take their 3s away from them today and extend our defense and make it hard on them. We were happy that we didn't give them many 3s (only three 3-pointers), and they had to force shots. Holding Pius to 32 points, I think we did a good job."
Brackmann led all scorers with 14 points, while Ludwig (7), Hintz (6), Somarsingh (4), Hahn (3) and Erenyi (2) rounded out the scoring. Zader led Pius with 11, while Collins had 8 and Szymborski 7.